Here’s why certificates and microcredentials will help you get your next job

Students attend a recent career fair. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern

At a time when the U.S. job market is only getting more competitive, a traditional higher education degree is essential to landing a job, according to a new study from Northeastern University.

But it is becoming more common for employers to decide that a degree alone is not enough. The study shows an increasing demand for job applicants to hold certificates, microcredentials, and real-world professional experience, in addition to college degrees. The findings suggest that employers are recognizing what Northeastern has long held: lifelong learning is essential to both securing a job and remaining relevant in a 21st century work environment.

As artificial intelligence and other factors are rapidly transforming the workforce landscape, employers are looking for people with relevant skills that reflect the current needs of their companies and industries. Similarly, employees are increasingly looking to master new skills and stay relevant in fields at every stage of their careers.

The study, published Thursday, is the first major quantitative reckoning of the value of degree and other higher education credential programs for the colleges and universities offering them and the employers considering them in hiring practices, said Sean Gallagher, executive director of Northeastern’s Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy.

Northeastern offers a variety of professional certificate- and masters programs to help learners acquire the skills they need throughout their lives to meet the increasing demand for qualified workers in the age of artificial intelligence.

The relative value of educational credentials in hiring has held steady or increased for most employers over the last 5 years

Compared to 5 years ago, has there been any change in how your organization values educational credentials alongside other job qualifications?

Generally speaking, how has the level of education required or preferred for the same jobs changed (if at all) over the last 5 years within your organization’s hiring process?

Data visualization by Lia Petronio/Northeastern University

Cumulative student debt has soared to $1.5 trillion in the United States, and artificial intelligence stands to take over blue- and white-collar jobs alike. This is causing some, including opinion columnists at The New York Times, to question whether college degrees are worth it.

The problem with such discourse is that it has been conducted in the absence of any quantitative study of the types of credentials colleges and universities offer, and their perceived value for employers. Until now.

“Contrary to the narrative that degrees matter less and less, it’s clear that educational credentials are still very much valued by employers,” Gallagher said. “Up to now there’s been a lot of anecdotes, and a lot of speculation. This is the first time there’s some data from a national survey.”

Sean Gallagher founded the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Gallagher conducted a national survey of 750 human resources leaders at U.S. employers both large and small, within myriad industries. He found that for more than three-quarters of employers (77 percent), the relative value of educational credentials, including traditional degrees and online degrees, has either held steady or increased over the past five years.

This is partially because as national unemployment rates have dropped, competition for jobs has ramped up, Gallagher said. Almost half of the employers he surveyed (44 percent) said they’ve increased the preferred or required level of education for the same jobs over the past five years as a result.

And industry hiring officials don’t expect the trend to stop any time soon. More than half of employers (64 percent) believe that the need for continuous lifelong learning will only increase in the future, according to the study.

The rise of talent analytics and skills-based hiring

Which of the following best characterizes your organization’s approach to determining/setting the educational qualifications that are preferred or required for job openings?

Driven by a tight job market, some organizations are beginning to move away from a reliance on college degrees in hiring, and are embracing skills-based or “competency-based” hiring approaches for certain roles. Which of the following best describes the extent to which your organization has formal initiatives like this underway, or is considering a strategy that de-emphasizes degrees and prioritizes skills/competency?

Data visualization by Lia Petronio/Northeastern University

This means job applicants and, to some extent, people who already hold jobs, need flexible education options that will enable them to stand apart from the crowd, Gallagher said. To achieve that, many people are turning to certificate programs and other condensed courses that don’t necessarily result in a degree, he said.

Students earn so-called microcredentials from these programs. These microcredentials often represent the mastery of a job-specific skill, as opposed to the accumulation of knowledge in a broad field that traditional degrees represent.

However, until Gallagher’s study, it wasn’t clear how much or even whether employers valued microcredentials. His research shows that for any given type of microcredential, about half of human resources officials had a “general awareness” of it. Between 25 and 50 percent of employers said they’d encountered certain types of microcredentials on candidates’ resumes, and roughly 10 to 15 percent have hired someone who had earned one.

Employers’ recommended priorities for colleges and universities

As online education continues to grow, which of the following would you recommend that colleges and universities prioritize, to ensure the quality and utility of online credentials as hiring signals?

Data visualization by Lia Petronio/Northeastern University

“Employers were clear that if there were something universities could do to improve their credentials as a hiring signal, it would be to align their courses with the world of work,” Gallagher said.

It would seem that if online programs focus on work experience, and employers are looking for work experience, these online programs would be more popular among employers. Gallagher posited that the reason they’re not is because such online credential programs are still so new.

Compared to degree programs, they’re generally in their infancy, Gallagher said. So these results could change drastically in the next few years. But it’s unlikely, at least for now, that they could stand in for a degree, he said.

“It’s still very early and we have to watch how these things are interpreted, but they do have some traction among employers,” Gallagher said. “It seems pretty definitive, though, that these are complements and supplements to degrees, not substitutes for the most part.”